A flap in Kentucky over religion in public schools is gaining some attention on news sites and social media.

Here’s what happened: Officials at Pike Central High School in Pikeville allowed a “prayer locker” to be established in the school. An empty locker was decorated with a sign encouraging students to deposit their prayer requests in it.

A picture of the locker was posted on the school’s Art Department Facebook page, and the idea was attributed to a “Mrs. Good.” A resident of the community felt this was not right and alerted Americans United. Because it appeared that teachers were spearheading this initiative, AU’s attorneys wrote to school officials and requested that the locker be taken down. The officials complied.

Since then, some students have announced that they will accept prayer requests from their peers through their lockers. I hope the students don’t think we have a problem with that because we don’t. Americans United does not oppose voluntary, non-disruptive forms of religious activity by public school students. These young people are free to accept prayer requests from one another and discuss religion among themselves. Americans United opposes school-sponsored, coercive forms of religion in public schools.

The distinction is crucial, and some background is helpful: In the school prayer cases from 1962 and ’63, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down practices that infringed on the rights of students (and their parents) by pressuring – or sometimes forcing – youngsters to take part in prayer and Bible reading. Americans United supports those rulings because we steadfastly oppose anything like government-sponsored force in matters of religion.

And make no mistake, force and compulsion were at play in many parts of the country when it came to prayer in public schools. In the 1962 case, a government body in New York had composed an allegedly “non-sectarian” prayer and allowed local school districts to compel students to recite it. In the 1963 case, the high court invalidated a Pennsylvania law that mandated that each school day begin with the recitation of 10 verses from the “Holy Bible” – with most schools using the King James Version – and a local district’s practice of teacher-led recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Parents and students protested these school-sponsored forms of worship, and the Supreme Court put a stop to them. But the high court made it clear that students could still pray voluntarily, read religious books during their free time and study religion as an academic subject. In addition, a federal law called the Equal Access Act guarantees the right of students in secondary schools to form religious clubs under certain conditions. These clubs meet during non-instructional time, and equal treatment is key. Students are permitted to form clubs that are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheistic, etc. Young people are free to join and attend these clubs as they see fit; no one is required to be there.

Religious Right groups are fond of claiming that public schools are “religion-free” zones, but that’s hardly the case. They are “religious coercion-free” zones, and that’s as it should be.

The school-sponsored prayer locker in Pikeville ran afoul of longstanding court precedent and had to go. That doesn’t affect a student’s decision to pray for a friend or the ability of a student to ask peers to pray for him or her.

As is always the case when it comes to religion, decisions about where, when and how to pray and worship are best left to the individual’s conscience. That’s true everywhere – even in Pikeville.